McFeely: Norris could fix anything, assuring The Forum kept humming
Norris Thompson, who worked his self-taught wizardry at the newspaper for 57 years before retiring, passes away at 79
FARGO — Just off the newsroom on the second floor of The Forum building is a library packed with filing cabinets. In them are decades worth of newspaper clippings and boxes of microfilm filled with issues of The Forum and its predecessors, going all the way back to the late 1800s. Taking up half the south wall is a machine called the Diebold Power File.
The Diebold Power File is where we kept our biographical clippings before the age of digitization. It is filled with history. It's a rotary contraption, probably quite the impressive bit of technology in its mid-1960s heyday.
You press a button corresponding with a letter, say "L" if you're trying to find former North Dakota Gov. Art Link's file, and theoretically the Diebold is supposed to rotate its innards until the "L" file comes to the front.
"Theoretically" is the operative word. I began working at The Forum in the mid-1980s. The power file was sketchy back then. You can imagine how it has aged in years since. And it's likely been decades since the power file's manufacturer supplied repairmen trained to fix it.
At The Forum, reporters who had trouble with the Diebold Power File — and that included most of us old-timers — had one remedy when that persnickety old girl acted up and prevented us from completing a story.
Find Norris. Or, to those who used his nickname, find "Rip."
That would be Norris Thompson, whose small shop at The Forum was filled with every tool, gadget, nut, bolt, string of wire, roll of tape, piece of hardware and "electric doodad" (in the words of entertainment writer John Lamb) known to man. Norris knew how to fix things, meaning everything. Including the dastardly Diebold Power File.
"He was our MacGyver," sportswriter Eric Peterson said, referencing the TV character who could fashion complicated projects out of rudimentary ingredients.
Norris was the ultimate problem-solver and Mr. Fixit, and he enjoyed the role. If you asked for Norris' help, he'd smile and follow you with his deliberate walk, probably wearing a flannel shirt or vest and sometimes a stocking cap, and fix whatever it was that needed fixing.
For us simple newsroom folks that might be a tape recorder, camera, computer cable or power cord.
For the production room, it might mean replacing a circuit board — or building one from scratch. For the pressroom, it might mean troubleshooting an issue after the gigantic press under The Forum building broke down. For the mailroom, it might mean repairing the stacker whose circuit board was on the blink.
Some people are expert repairmen in one area. Norris was seemingly an expert in everything, with a particular knack for electronics.
"The guy was amazing," said Larry Anders, a production co-worker for more than 40 years. "He could fix anything. He could take anything electronic apart and put it back together."
Norris began working for The Forum in 1962. He retired in October 2019 after 57 years of incalculable value to this newspaper.
So the news of Norris Thompson's recent death at the age of 79 , only 14 months after retirement, hit hard. Among his survivors are his wife Jan, who worked at The Forum for more than 22 years before retiring in 2007.
These words are being written because Norris had one of the most remarkable and valuable careers this newspaper has ever seen. He was also one of the gentlest, kindest, well-liked, respected people at The Forum.
Among the remarkable items: His electronic wizardry was self-taught. Norris graduated from Fargo's Central High School in 1959 and began working at The Forum three years later as a machinist who repaired the old Linotype machines used for typesetting newspapers.
"But he saw what was coming, so he bought one of those correspondence courses you'd see advertised in the paper. 'Learn electronics,'" Anders said. "I think it was like $600 or something, which was pretty big dough in those days. But he bought one of those courses and taught himself. He was a helluva guy."
The Forum's production director, Mike Crabtree, said Norris would map out circuit boards on a piece of paper to figure out how to solve a problem. Former photo editor Colburn Hvidston III said his bosses once turned down a budget request for expensive pieces of lighting equipment, so Norris built them from scratch.
"That was in the early 1980s. I was still using them when I retired in 2004," Hvidston said. "He really saved our butts. He was something else. If you needed something fixed, he could do it."
Norris and Jan were huge North Dakota State basketball fans, longtime season-ticket holders who traveled each year to the Summit League tournament in Sioux Falls, S.D. Shortly after he retired, my wife and I saw Norris and Jan at the Sanford Health Athletic Complex and struck up a conversation.
When it ended, my wife asked me, "What did he do at the paper again?"
I said, "I don't know what his job description was, but he was the guy who kept (stuff) running so we could get out a paper every day."
"Every place needs a guy like that," she said.
We had ours. For the record, his title at retirement was "production technician." It should have been "wizard."
Rest in peace, Norris.